An unexpected delight crowns my first day in Durness. Two hours earlier, I had arrived at this doughty little village on the north-western tip of the British mainland to find it as ghost-ship-quiet and windswept as I had anticipated it being on a late winter’s afternoon. But when I returned from a walk out to the coast, the tiny seaside car-park opposite my bunkhouse was filled by a big blue lorry and trailer at which a queue was forming.
A flickering neon sign hanging off the lorry’s passenger door announced it as the Screen Machine and what a wonder it proved to be. A mobile, 80-seat cinema, it travels all year round to out-of-the-way parts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It was an irresistible enticement. At 8pm, I joined a fifth of the village’s inhabitants, young and old alike, in paying £7 to watch La La Land from a metal box. The experience was otherwise just like going to any cinema, with red, fold-down, cushioned seats and Pearl & Dean advertising. Save that is for the fact that it was blowing a gale outside and the lorry rocked from side to side as we watched the cavorting Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
I had travelled north from my home on the Isle of Skye. It took five hours to drive the 186 miles from Portree, Skye’s capital village, to Durness, population 400, in the county of Sutherland. Initially, I headed inland before joining the A835 arterial road north-west of Inverness and snaking up the scenic west coast of Scotland.
On Skye, we are blessed with an abundance of ravishing land- and seascapes, but Sutherland takes elemental remoteness to a whole other level. Some say JRR Tolkien used the region as inspiration for parts of his Middle Earth and it’s easy to see why. One of the most sparsely populated wilderness in Western Europe, it has a rugged, otherworldly beauty. The terrain is an epic vista of mighty mountains, russet heathland and turquoise sea lochs.
Just up the road from the village of Inchnadamph, I spied a castle ruin on a rocky outcrop butting into Loch Assynt and pulled off the road. Ardvreck Castle dates from 1590 and there isn’t much left of it but for its vaulting walls, though the setting is idyllic. The surrounding moorland and pine forest is one of the last strongholds of the Scottish wild cat, but I would have had to stay until dusk for the remotest chance of spotting one.
I drank in the view and pressed on. Ten miles further, I stopped again for lunch at the Kylesku Hotel. Sitting in a deep armchair in its cosy dining room, looking out of a floor-to-ceiling picture window, I felt as if I was floating on the gently lapping waters of Loch Glendhu. Beyond, the encircling crags are as jagged as broken teeth. The food was great, too: a plate of the freshest oysters and langoustines fished from out of the loch that morning.
As I set off once more, rain began to lash down. This only enhanced the drama of crossing the Kylesku Bridge, a curved, 276-metre-long concrete edifice soaring 25 metres above the loch on spidery legs. Within another hour I reached Durness, hunkered down at the foot of rolling hills and stretched along a meandering section of seaside road.
Braving the elements, I ventured straight out and made for Faraid Head, a fingertip peninsula poking into the roaring seas of Pentland Firth. Bracing doesn’t even begin to describe my three-mile trek out from the village to this extremity. The wind up here is a fierce, foreboding beast and I was blasted by 80mph gusts which brought with them a frigid Arctic chill.
My route took me around the sweeping, white-sand arc of Balnakiel Beach and on up through an expanse of hulking dunes. The beach is one of Britain’s best spots for surfing, but there wasn’t a soul risking the crashing waves. I went on across open moorland and arrived at an ominous, plunging clifftop. The gothic bulk of Cape Wrath loomed off to my left, the most north-westerly point on the British mainland and closer to Reykjavik than London. The contrast between it and luminescent La La Land could not have been starker.
I was staying two nights at the Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse right off the main road. The bunkhouse is small, homely, log-cabin like, with a well-stocked kitchen – a necessity since there’s a dearth of places to eat out at hereabouts. On both days there was just one other guest, an effusive Austrian gentleman on an Aurora-watching trip. From October through April, the northern lights are regularly seen dancing across Sutherland’s black skies – although not, unfortunately for my new friend, on such brooding days as these.
Next morning, I drove out to the eastern fringe of the village to visit Smoo Cave. From the roadside car park, I walked down a wooden stairway that zig-zagged along the rock face to the beach below. At 40 metres high and 15 wide, it is Britain’s largest sea cave entrance and sheers off into a series of equally vast chambers. In summer, there are boat trips into the deepest recesses but there was no one around so I contented myself with a stroll into the nearest chamber. Even here, there was a tangible air of ages-old darkness and menace. A waterfall tumbled 12 metres from the cave roof. The old Clan MacLeod chiefs once used this torrent to dispose of the corpses of slain rivals.
At the opposite end of Durness and a mile down the coast road is the Balnakiel Craft Village. The site was built by the MoD in the 1950s as a Cold War listening station, but since 1963, the tight square of squat, grey buildings has been occupied by adventuring bands of artists and artisans. I spent an hour perusing such delights as Nicola Poole’s Wee Gallery, stocked with storm-filled landscapes, and Phil’s Salon, in which artist Phil Tanzer displays his recycled metal works.
The Craft Village is also home to charming-looking pottery, jewellery and glassware shops, but the rain was back so I hurried instead into the very welcoming Cocoa Mountain café. From June and when motoring hordes speed through Durness on the now-fabled North Coast 500 drive, there is often a queue to get into this place but I had it to myself. The cafe shop is a chocoholics’ paradise and the regular customers for such gourmet creations as champagne truffles and whisky-toffee reputedly include Russian tycoons, Arab sheiks and Yoko Ono. I settled for a cup of the speciality hot chocolate, which looked like liquid velvet and tasted delicious.
After this indulgence, I climbed back into the car and drove east again and out of Durness. The A835 goes on for 90 more miles to John O’Groats, but after four I turned off on to a pebbled drive and through a stone-walled gateway crowned by a pair of huge ceramic pots. This is the entrance to Danish artist Lotte Glob’s Sculpture Croft and the centrepiece of which is her own award-winning, timber-clad home, a slender, tapering structure which rises on stilts from the scrubland and peers out to Loch Eriboll like the prow of an old sailing ship.
I walked the criss-crossing pathways of the 14-acre croft: Glob has planted thousands of trees and peppered the grounds with her striking, primal looking rock sculptures. The site runs down to the loch’s edge. There, water breaking at my feet, snow-capped peaks framed by a bruised sky, I felt as if I was standing at the outermost, boundless reaches of the world.
• Beds at the Lazy Crofter Bunkhouse at Mackay’s Rooms, Durness (visitdurness.com/bunkhouse) cost £20 a night. There is also B&B accommodation from £129 for two, and a self-catering cabin for two from £175 a night